Thursday, September 14, 2006

Nitzavim-Vayelekh (Torah)

“You Are Standing This Day”

The Torah concludes with four brief weekly portions, each of them barely more than a chapter long (averaging only 40 verses). Two of them, Nitzavim and Vayelekh (Deut 29:9 - 31) are often read together on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana. Because of all the fuss of preparations, both spiritual and gastronomic, for the High Holidays, these portions often tend to be somewhat shunted aside.

And indeed, after the lengthy admonition in Deuteronomy 28, it is not quite clear what function is served by the chapter of Nitzavim, which seems to be yet another admonition—apart from the dramatic opening, ”You are all of you standing this day before the Lord your God” (29:9). This verse serves, so-to-speak, as appropriate grist for the homiletic mill of preachers during the days preceding Rosh Hashana, when our own spiritual situation is indeed seen as one of standing before God and preparing to renew the covenant with Him. (This is especially so among Hasidic thinkers, such as those of Habad and Bretslav, among whom the first night of Rosh Hashana is thought of as “the Night of the Coronation”—i.e., a night of crowning God and accepting his sovereignty over us.) But all this is of course on the level of derush (homiletics).

On the straightforward level, this chapter serves as a kind of recapitulation of all that has gone before. Moses as if tells Israel: after the historical survey, extensive homiletics, review of the laws of Torah, covenantal ceremonies, and the blessings and curses, you are at last indeed ready to cross over into the land that God has promised you; to commence your national existence, not as wanderers or as people living on miracles from heaven, but as a normal nation living on its own soil, yet nevertheless conducting its life in awareness of the sovereignty of God. So, in a few short but choice words, Moses gives a final warning: remember to observe the covenant, beware of the dire consequences of its violation. But there are at least three elements which have not gone before.

1) A warning to those individuals who think that they can get away with individual transgressions, and even disloyalty to the covenant, by relying upon the overall goodness and merit of the community. This won’t work: such a “root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” will be held to account: “The Lord will not wish to forgive him” (vv. 17-20). The interesting thing about this passage is that it expresses a mentality diametrically opposed to that with which most contemporary people were raised. We think of ourselves, first and foremost, as individuals; belonging to the community, to a collective, seems somehow artificial, something that requires a certain mental switch, or a certain kind of education (or indoctrination?). For many who have returned to Judaism and/or Jewish national identity, this is a slow and painful process, often never fully completed. For moderns, there is always an “I” that consciously chooses to belong to the “we.” To the Biblical Jew—and, I dare say, to most generations of Jews in classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, and even into early modernity, the mental situation was precisely the opposite: belonging to the group was the natural thing, while the atomistic individual consciousness was in some sense an innovation of modernity. The evil-doer of this verse clearly sees himself as part of the community, as a natural affiliation, but in his case it is seen as something to be cynically exploited: “I can be bad because the masses of good Jews will carry me along as on the crest of a wave—‘the quenched sweeping along the thirsty’ (v. 18; one possible reading of this difficult and enigmatic verse)—without my delinquency being noticed.” It is this kind of thinking that the Torah wishes to stem. God notices the individual, and will let loose His fury, in a focused way, upon him.

2) Suddenly, at the start of v. 21, there is a switch back to the community. Unlike the two great admonitions of Lev 26 and Deut 28, which are addressed to the Israelite people in the second person, here we are shown a picture of some future observer coming upon the land of Israel and seeing desolation everywhere. “The whole land is brimestone and salt, a burnt-out waste, unsown, not blossoming” (v. 22). This hypothetical future observer then asks the question: “Why did the Lord do this to this land? Why this great anger” (v. 23). And he is told: because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord. Sheerly in terms of literary effect, this futuristic picture of the grave-like stillness of the land is far more chilling than the detailed, graphic descriptions of the unfolding catastrophe of the earlier admonitions. Surely, if that does not make people think twice before abandoning the Lord’s covenant, nothing will.

3) Chapter 30 contains the “chapter of teshuvah,” the promise to Israel that “when all these things befall you,” then “you shall return to the Lord your God” vv. 1-2). Rav Soloveitchik, commenting in one of his public lectures on the absence of a “happy end” in the admonition of Deut 28, comments that the “happy end“ is found here: the entire parasha is in fact a kind of postscript or sequel to that tokheha—and, one might add, uniquely appropriate to the week before Rosh Hashana. “And the Lord will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring” (v. 6). The Torah emphasizes here the essentially spiritual, inner nature of the act of teshuva, of “turning” to God, as symbolized by circumcision of the heart in contrast to fleshly circumcision. But unlike, lehavdil, Pauline Christianity, one does not supplant or replace the other; both exist together. There is the rich symbolic structure of the practical mitzvot, and then there is the quiet, inner work of tikkun hamiddot (character change). For the Jew, why anyone should even think that there is a conflict between the two is incomprehensible.

The second of these oft-paired readings, Vayelekh (Deut 31), consists mostly of practical instructions given by Moses before his death, and includes two central mitzvot: Hakhel, the assembly of the entire people to hear the reading of the Torah during Sukkot at the conclusion of the sabbatical year (vv. 10-13); and the writing of the Song ”that will be for you as a testimony” (v. 19)—a verse from which the Sages infer the obligation of every Jew to write (or participate in writing) a Torah scroll. We will elaborate upon this Song and the unique significance of its “serving as a witness” when we discuss the text of the song itself, in Parshat Ha’azinu.

As for Hakhel: we have already discussed the gamut of mitzvot involved in the sabbatical year, in both Behar and Re’eh. Let me add that, jaded and cynical as I may sometimes feel about the excess of pompous state ceremonies that are part of the annual cycle here in Israel, a shiver went down my spine to hear the voice of the late then-President Chaim Herzog (during Sukkot 1987) reading the opening verses of Devarim from a Sefer Torah at the mass gathering “In Memory of the Hakhel” held every seven years at the Western Wall.

“Arise, Cry Out in the Night… Pour out your heart like water before the Divine Presence” (Lam 2:19)

There is a unique ambience to the Selihot prayers, recited during the pre-dawn hours during the days before Rosh Hashana and the Ten Days of Repentance (or, among the Sephardim, throughout the month of Elul). The idea of rising for prayer in the still of the night, when the entire world is sleeping, creates an unusual atmosphere, conducive to a special type of prayer. There is an introspective, emotional mood elicited at that hour; ideally, prayer at this time is thoroughly unhurried, focused, concentrated, without the sense felt on weekday mornings of rushing to finish so as to begin the day’s work. The Kabbalists referred to this time as that of hesed shebe-din—“mercy within sternness.” Night, generally, is thought of as a time of fear, of lurking dangers; but as the night begins to recede, and day is felt to be just beyond the horizon, it begins to be “sweetened” with the quality of hesed of the daylight hours.

Maimonides (Hil. Teshuva 3.4) already refers to the custom among all Jewish communities to rise before dawn during the ten days between Rish Hashana nd Yom Kippur and to recite divrei tahanunim ve-kibbushin (“supplication and words of admonition”). Rav Soloveitchik speaks of Selihot as a kind of tefilat nedava, a voluntary or non-statutory prayer. Ordinarily, he notes, one is not allowed to approach God outside of established framework, for which reason there are all the elaborate rules and etiquette governing prayer. Here, in keeping with the mood of tense expectation connected with the days of teshuva, the Jewish people turn to God and beseech mercy outside of the regular framework.

The concept of Selihot was first introduced on public fast days as a kind of addition to prayer. But there they are recited immediately after the Reader’s Repetition, as an almost integral part of the Amidah itself; indeed, the name is not derived, as is often thought, from the motif of asking forgiveness from God, but rather from their having originally been interpolated within the blessing of Selah Lanu, the third petitionary blessing of weekday Amidah, just as Yotzrot are inserted in that section of the service. (I once observed Selihot for the fast day of BeH”aB recited in Selah Lanu in a congregation of Alsatian Jews in Paris, which I think of as a kind of nature preserve of medieval Ashkenazic customs).

As for the structure of the Selihot: at its heart are the shelosh esreh middot, the 13 qualities of Divine mercy, and Viduy, an abridged version of the confession of sins said on Yom Kippur. One best prepares for the great encounter with God during the Days of Awe by confession: by acknowledging ones own faults, through humility and abandoning ones puffed-up ego.

These are preceded by an impressive chain of Biblical verses, in which the key words at the end of one verse lead into the beginning of the next. The opening verses state that God listens to those who “knock on his gates in teshuva,” and continue with verses celebrating God’s majesty, His power over all of creation: “Day is yours, and also night; you created sun and luminaries… summer and winter you have made.”

Among the 13 middot and the biblical verses are the Selihot themselves: piyyutim, medieval Hebrew poems, presenting a broad picture of Jewish history, the merits of the patriarchs, reflection on the transience of human life, on God’s might and wisdom, etc. These follow a fixed pattern and style, increasing in number from three each night of the days before Rosh Hashana, to seven or eight during the Ten Days. The pinnacle is reached on the Eve of Rosh Hashana, with the lengthy collection of Selihot known as Zekhor Berit—“Remember the covenant with Abraham and the binding of Isaac…” The Selihot then conclude with verses invoking the merit of the patriarchs and various divine promises, and conclude with miscellaneous hymns and prayers.

Reflections on Teshuvah

I had originally intended to try my hand here on a discussion of Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuva—a subject to which I will perhaps return for Shabbat Shuvah. For this Shabbat, of the eve of first Selihot, I wish to share a very simple insight. Teshuva is essentially a “switch” in ones mind; a “turning,” as the name itself suggests. It is a decision of the heart and of the will. True, it needs to followed up by certain changes in behavior, requiring consistency and a dogged determination to follow through, but the act itself takes place in the depths of the soul, in the inner recesses of the personality where a person ultimately tells himself that some aspect of how he has been living is no good; that he or she is fed with himself on this point, and wishes to change. Or, to be more precise, teshuva occurs when one crosses the thin line that distinguishes wishing to change from deciding to change.

This is the sense of Rambam’s comment in Hilkhot Teshuva 2.4: “One of the ways of teshuva is for the penitent to change his name, as if to say ‘I am different; I am not the same person who did those acts.’” This is also one of the meanings of the verse in this week’s portion, ”It is not in heaven… nor is it over the sea… but this thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it” (30:12-14). This refers, not to physical distance, but to psychological distance, as if to refute those who say: the psychological distance required to change oneself, to turn, is unbridgeable.

This approach is very different from the modern mentality, or perhaps from that of Western culture generally. There is an element of fatalism in Western literature, from the Greek tragedy to Dostoevsky, in which catastrophe comes about through the inevitable play of character. The doctrine of original sin in Christian theology may be another expression of the same theme; contemporary psychological and biological determinism ultimately draws upon the same roots. Hence, the Jewish concept of teshuva, of the possibility of radical personal change, involves a daring hiddush, an innovation mitigating against the dominant belief in the essentially inflexible and fixed nature of character and personality. Thus, properly understood, the call to teshuva is not one of moralistic self-flagellation, but essentially a liberating message, of potential for freedom and rebirth.


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